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“The long-term battle is going to be won on trust”: Asian publishers fight fake news with innovative strategies

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Fake news is rampant in some Asian countries like India and the Philippines. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of this misinformation is state-sponsored. Also, it is increasingly being spread through encrypted messaging apps like Whatsapp, which makes it nearly impossible to track.

While social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are doing their bit to tackle this menace, a few news publishers, like Rappler (Philippines) and The Quint (India), have risen to the task with innovative strategies.

The shark tank

In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of news website Rappler, lives under constant threat. Her outlet’s investigative reporting on the bloody state-run campaign against illegal drugs antagonized the country’s ruling party.

Ressa and her colleagues have repeatedly been threatened with violence. Several cases have been filed against her, some carrying jail terms up to 15 years if found guilty, and she has been arrested twice.

The attacks on Facebook are insidious and extremely personal, from the way I look and sound, to threats of rape and murder. As a former war-zone correspondent, I have been in the line of fire, but nothing prepared me for this.

Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of Rappler

In order to respond more efficiently to online threats and trolls, Rappler started collecting data on its abusers in a database they named ‘the shark tank.’ It stores over a terabyte of information tracking disinformation networks, and is powered by artificial intelligence.

Gemma Bagayaua Mendoza, Head of Research at Rappler told Reuters, “We literally started with Google Spreadsheets. We started tracking what looked like dubious pages, dubious accounts.

“And then we realized that ‘Okay, this is not gonna work. You’ll have to have somebody there literally scouring through all of these things.’ We started automating the process of monitoring so that then we could analyze the data. Now, we’re looking at 16,000 public pages. There’s one born every day.

Now Rappler works with Facebook, helping it identify and takedown disinformation sites. According to a recent Reuters report, Facebook has taken down 200 pages, groups, and accounts engaged in what it termed ‘coordinated, inauthentic behavior.’

“What we’re after is getting them to take down the rest of it, and slowly what they’re doing is they’re getting closer to the government’s propaganda machine. It’s like peeling layers of an onion,” says Ressa.

“Flies in the face of everything we’ve presumed”

Figthing fake news in India, a country with 300 million Facebook and 240 million Whatsapp users, is a formidable challenge. With the elections underway, the problem is at its peak.

Watchdogs say in the run-up to the vote they’ve seen everything from manipulated pictures being picked up by mainstream news media, to misrepresented quotes sparking communal division, false news, and hateful propaganda. And it looks like people are buying it.

The Associated Press

The Quint, an Indian digital news publisher, launched its own fact-checking initiative WebQoof, in 2018. The term is derived from the Hindi word ‘bewaqoof,’ which means idiot. The idea being that someone who believes anything on the web without checking the facts, is an idiot.

The unit has a dedicated team of reporters, who collaborate with readers on surfacing and debunking fake news on India’s social media, including WhatsApp.

WebQoof updates on The Quint’s WhatsApp channel:

The same update on its Twitter handle:

WebQoof is a newsroom-wide effort where journalists produce informative articles and videos that spot and explain various instances of fake news.

The Quint’s “Dr. WebQoof” picks 2018’s top fake news spread in India:

The publisher also works closely with regional and local media, as well as with fact-checking sites, to debunk hoaxes and false claims. Readers are encouraged to submit dubious stories for verification, which also helps the publisher identify fake news that may have flown under its radar.

According to a WAN-IFRA report, a single such call to action prompted between 100 and 150 submissions. It also says that WebQoof is one of The Quint’s fastest growing segments in terms of readership.

Ritu Kapur, Co-founder and CEO of The Quint, told WAN-IFRA, “That’s really where the light at the end of the tunnel is for us, because everything you hear is that people are in their filter bubbles and that they only want to read stories that confirm their biases.

“But clearly, this onslaught of mails that have come to us for verification, and the fact that our fact-checking stories get such high consumption, is very reassuring because it sort of flies in the face of everything we’ve presumed on how people just want to believe fake stories.”

“The currency is going to be credibility”

According to the Reuters report, organizations like Rappler and The Quint are developing new capacities and skills as they counter the menace of fake news. It’s helping them differentiate “from their competitors, and potentially increasing their long-term sustainability, in ways we believe other news media worldwide could learn from.”

Kapur adds, “The long- term battle is going to be won on trust … the currency is going to be credibility. And in India, believe me, it’s a precious currency.

“But when the dust settles, people will turn to the credible people, the media houses or the journalists that they can believe in. I think that is important. I think it’s the best thing you can do to build a brand.”